Embrace of the Serpent
Directed by: Ciro Guerra.
Written by: Ciro Guerra and Jacques Toulemonde Vidal based on the diary by Theodor Koch-Grunberg and Richard Evans Schultes.
Starring: Nilbio Torres (Young Karamakate), Jan Bijvoet (Theo), Antonio Bolivar (Old Karamakate), Brionne Davis (Evan), Yauenkü Migue (Manduca), Nicolás Cancino (Anizetto), Luigi Sciamanna (Priest Gaspar).
There is so much to like about Embrace of the Serpent, that you want to overlook the parts of its that try too hard – the parts that underline the themes of the movie, than circle back to underline them again. It’s a film that wears its influences on its sleeve, and perhaps would have been better served by referring to them just a little bit less often – or at least in less obvious ways. All of that is a shame because the black and white photography in the film is beautiful, and the dual narratives do an excellent job making everything clear without co-writer/director Ciro Guerra doing all the work for the audience himself.
The film is about dual journeys up the same river in Colombia, South America, approximately 40 years apart. In 1909 Theo (Jan Bijovoet) is dragged ashore by his assistant, Manduca (Tauensku Migue) to see Karamakate (Nilbio Torres) – the last member of his tribe, and perhaps the only man in the jungle who can save the European explorer’s life. Karamakate has some sort of white powder that he blows into Theo’s face as they journey up the river, looking for a mythical plant that can cure him – running into various people along the way. Decades later, Evan (Brionne Davis), an American studying psychedelic drugs, wants to find the same plant Theo was chasing, and once again gets Karamakate (now played by Antonio Bolivar) to guide him up the river. Karamakate claims to no longer know where he’s supposed to go – but does believe the two men are the same person.
Embrace of the Serpent’s main theme is about colonialism, obviously, and how the natives in South America were essentially bulled over by white settlers – who, in the case of this movie anyway, either had good intentions, or no clue of just how destructive their presence was going to be. Embrace of the Serpent makes this clear as the journeys mirror each other, and we see the effects of events in the first journey during the second. Most notable of these is the dual scenes at a Christian missionary – the first, where the white settlers are imposing a harsh version of Christianity on the “savage” natives – and later, when we see the although the natives have taken over, they’ve grown even more violent - or as Karamakate describes it – “the worst of both worlds”.
It’s in scenes like that where Embrace of the Serpent works best. Where it stumbles a little is when Guerra gives speeches to Karamakate, who basically just tells the audience what the themes of the movie are, and what it all means. These dialogue scenes are clumsy and unnecessary – and there’s more than one of them as well.
Watching the film, you’ll recognize the influences on Guerra and his style – from ethnographic documentaries to the collected works of Apichatpong Weerasethakul to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, and especially the works of Werner Herzog – his two river based masterpieces, Aguirre the Wrath of God and Fitzcaraldo, in particular. The film tries to reference these films and move on – but sometimes, the references are a little too on the nose (when a care breaks out a record players on the river, for instance, it’s a clumsy reference to Fitzcaraldo).
There is enough to like about Embrace of the Serpent to make it well worth seeing – any film with black and white photography this good is more than worth seeing (and it’s good enough that I now really regret missing it when it was in theaters). It’s a flawed film to be sure – but one that makes me interested to see what Guerra does next,